History was made on July 4, 1908, the date of the first pre-announced, publicly-witnessed, officially certified flight of an airplane in the United States.
Who made the historic flight? Hint: it was not the Wright brothers!
The flight was made by New York aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss (1878-1930) in Hammondsport, NY, a village at the south end of Keuka Lake, in Steuben County. It was unlike the Wright Brothers’ earlier flights, which had not been pre-announced, public affairs and/or were not certified by an official organization.
Curtiss had begun his career years earlier as a maker of bicycles, then motorized bikes, and then motorcycles in his shop in Hammondsport. He had a flair for tinkering, testing, trying things out, and continually improving them. In 1906, Curtiss exhibited his engines at a convention of aviation enthusiasts in New York City, hoping to boost sales to makers of dirigibles and biplanes.
He met Alexander Graham Bell, the famed inventor of the telephone, who had moved on to an interest in experimental aircraft. Bell had developed huge flying machines that were a hybrid of gliders and kites and needed powerful engines to make the awkward machines fly. Curtiss could furnish just what Bell needed. Bell invited Curtiss and a number of other aeronautical pioneers to join him in a new organization, the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) in 1907. After a few experiments with Bell’s ponderous machines near his Nova Scotia estate, the group moved its operations to Hammondsport, where Curtiss’ shop was located, and switched to experimenting with fixed-wing biplanes in 1908.
Curtiss advanced from engine maker to airplane designer and test pilot. The team’s first biplane crashed on its second flight. Bell suggested installing hinged flaps, soon to be called “ailerons,” to the trailing edge of each wing which the pilot could maneuver to aid with horizontal stability and control. The concept was not new, but Bell and Curtiss refined it and it helped the AEA’s next plane, the White Wing (white cotton cloth covered its wings) to achieve four successful short flights in May 1908 before crashing. (Ailerons proved to be durable technology and are still the basis for aircraft control today).
Curtiss assumed primary responsibility for designing and building the next aircraft, another biplane, which he called the June Bug after insects of the same name that were chirping during the warm evenings around Keuka Lake where Hammondsport was located. He built and installed a more powerful engine, made the aileron system stronger and more responsive, and mounted the primitive plane on three bicycle wheels from his shop. Curtiss decided to fly the June Bug himself and compete for a trophy and cash prize offered by the prestigious journal Scientific American for the first publicly witnessed manned flight of over a kilometer.
Curtiss made a few test flights of the June Bug in the last few days of June 1908 and announced he would fly for the prize on Independence Day. Members of the press, curiosity seekers, and a delegation from the Aero Club of America which would observe and certify the results, assembled in Hammondsport a couple of days early. Curtiss gave interviews to newsmen and arranged for use of a racetrack near a local winery, the Pleasant Valley Wine Company, for takeoff and landing (the winery’s owner generously provided free samples, grateful for the free publicity).
On the morning of July 4th, hundreds more people converged on the village to see history being made. Curtiss flew a number of test flights, one of which ended abruptly when the engine failed. Rain delayed the flight for several hours. Toward evening, the June Bug taxied and rose from the race track, then settled back down because of a tail wing malfunction. Undaunted, Curtiss tried again and effected a flawless flight of 1 minute and 40 seconds, travelling 1.6 KM. An eyewitness reported: “Hemmed in by bars and wires, with a 40 HP engine exploding behind him leaving a trail of smoke, and with a whirling propeller cutting the air 1200 times a minute, he sailed with 40 feet of outstretched wings 20 feet above our heads.”
History had been made in the sky. Curtiss won the trophy, the $25,000 prize that went with it, and instant fame.
Curtiss moved quickly after that. In 1909, he established his own airplane manufacturing company and began producing planes using aileron control technology.
In August of that year, he won an international flying competition at Rheims, France.
The following May, Curtiss became the first person to fly from Albany to New York City.
In 1911, after demonstrating airplanes’ military potential for the Navy, he received the first Navy contract to build planes and train pilots and earned the informal title “Father of Naval Aviation.”
Glenn Curtiss is credited with over five hundred inventions, including several types of wing designs, controls, throttles, brakes, retractable landing gear, pontoons and amphibious airplanes. The Wrights fought him in court over alleged patent infringement from 1909 to 1917. In that year, the government, desperate to increase aircraft production as the U.S. entered World War I, put the rivalry to rest through an agreement that permitted sharing of patented processes and allocation of profits. Curtiss operated the largest airplane manufacturing facility in the world for a while in 1918. In 1920, he retired from the business.
In 1924, Time magazine, reporting on an international air show in Dayton, Ohio, to honor the Wrights in their hometown, noted that at least half the planes there were powered by Curtiss engines and there was “no one plane [there] but bore some evidence of the contributions he has made to mankind’s knowledge of the air” through “ingenuity, mechanical skill, persistence, enterprise [and] daring.” Citing a long list of his conventions, Time put Glenn Curtiss on its cover.
Why doesn’t the public does not know more about the June Bug’s epochal flight and about Glenn Curtiss generally?
One reason, of course, is that the Wright Brothers were “first in flight” with their pioneering flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., on December 17, 1903. But they stuck with their pioneering air flight and control technology, secured a broad patent for it in 1906, and were slow to update it. They were more interested in forcing other pioneers to purchase licensing rights, even innovators like Curtiss who were inventing things on their own (his use of ailerons was much different from their method of control, which they called “wing warping) and constantly improving them. Curtiss secured a number of patents, but he competed mainly through updating the technology, innovating, and producing excellent, reliable products.
The Wrights were also much better than Curtiss, a modest, self-effacing entrepreneur, in securing attention and publicity.
There is a terrific Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in his hometown, Hammondsport, NY, which commemorates the June Bug and his other achievements. But he has been outdistanced museum-wise by the Wrights, whose home in Dayton, Ohio, is a National Park Service site, and whose pioneering 1903 flight is commemorated by another NPS site, in Kill Devil Hills, N.C.
Their 1903 plane, the Wright Flyer, is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. Curtiss later outfitted the June Bug with pontoons (another of his inventions) but it sank in Keuka Lake during a test. It was retrieved, but was relegated to rot away in a nearby storehouse. There is a replica at the Curtiss Museum.
Ohio featured the slogan “Birthplace of Aviation” on its automobile license plates for many years, in honor of the Wright brothers’ work there. North Carolina’s plates say “First in Flight,” commemorating the Kitty Hawk flight. New York has a Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, Long Island, and a number of other sites that focus on aviation history. But it could do more to commemorate its pioneering role in this area. Commemorating the June Bug’s flight, for instance, on the Path Through History, would help in this regard.
The Wright Brothers assembled and left behind more letters, blueprints and other documentation than Curtiss, who tended to build and try things rather than drawing sketches and writing out specifications. They have drawn more attention from biographers and historians. Their fame was burnished last year by a new book by Pulitzer Prize willing author David McCullough, The Wright Brothers, which makes early aviation history mostly their story and dismisses Curtiss as a pesky, second-tier rival.
Lawrence Goldstone’s excellent book Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Sky, published about the same time as McCullough’s, gives much more credit to Curtiss and other early aviation innovators. He contends that contends that the Wright brothers’ broad patent and threat of lawsuits against alleged violators actually retarded growth of the nascent aviation industry.
McCullough made the New York Times bestseller list. Goldstone attracted much less popularly and scholarly limelight.
Curtiss’ dramatic Independence Day 1908 flight of the June Bug suggests that this aviation pioneer merits more attention from historians and the public.
Photos: Above, Glenn Curtiss in France in 1909; and below, a postcard showing Glenn Curtiss’s “June Bug” Flight in Hammondsport.